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Co-Parenting with a Narcissist

Amy Guertin
Narcissist ignoring spouse and children

It is very challenging to truly co-parent with someone who has narcissistic traits and therefore a limited capacity for empathy. Instead, you need to focus on co-parenting in spite of these narcissistic behaviors, with an emphasis on insulating yourself and your children from the co-parent's manipulation and rage.

Do What Is Best for Your Children

A person who has narcissistic tendencies will always put their needs first. He or she will not put the children first and will attempt to use the children as tools for their agenda. Since they will not put the needs of your children first, you need to - regardless of the effects of your behavior on him or her.

Be a Good Role Model

Your kids need to see one healthy parent. If children have at least one healthy role model in their lives, they will not only survive, they will thrive. You need to show them that although they may not be able to control their unhealthy parent's behavior, they are able to control their own. Don't bad mouth your co-parent to your kids. Although he or she may be doing that about you, show your kids the right way to behave.

Compensate for the Narcissist's Neglect

People with narcissistic traits generally do not have strong emotional connections to their children. Due to this and the fact that they don't put their children's needs before theirs, kids can feel emotionally neglected by this parent. Make sure that you compensate for this by reassuring your children that they are good people and that they are loved.

Encourage Your Kids' Interests

Enroll your children in activities that allow them to explore their interests. The other parent may not encourage this, as some of the activities, like games and practices may occur on his or her time. Encourage him or her to bring the children to their planned events but be prepared to do so yourself if he or she is not cooperative.

Mom supporting her son's interest in baseball

Protect Your Kids

Some individuals with narcissistic personality disorder may be verbally, emotionally, financially, and physically abusive. If your narcissistic partner or ex is in any way abusing the children it is your responsibility to remove them from the situation immediately and contact the police to file a report. You may also want to consider taking legal action and consulting with a lawyer that specializes in this type of family dynamic. It is critical that children have at least one parent protecting and prioritizing their mind, body, and spirit. If not, this type of treatment can be detrimental to their development, and also cuts their precious childhoods short.

What Not To Do in Front of Your Kids

Although it can be really difficult, it is important to refrain from badmouthing your partner or ex in front of your children. This puts them in an uncomfortable and inappropriate situation where they are forced to comprehend a situation well beyond their maturity. Don't encourage them to pick sides, just continue to be the consistent, loving parent they can rely on. Chances are, with time, they will figure out on their own how much contact they'd like to have with their other parent who has narcissistic traits.

Boost Your Children's Coping Skills

There's no way around avoiding the fact that your co-parent will have some impact on your child's well-being. To help your child cope with inappropriate or emotionally damaging situations, teach them about healthy ways to process emotions and model this for them as well. This means that when your partner or ex says something or does something that hurts your child, teach them:

  • Label their emotions and identify where they feel it in their bodies
  • Talk about it with them and validate their experience using mirroring language such as, "It sounds like you're feeling...."
  • That you will always be there for them as a non-judgmental, loving, and consistent parent
  • To find healthy outlets such as volunteering, writing, creating artwork
  • To ground themselves using breathing techniques and mindfulness exercises

Legal Considerations

If you and your partner have split up, be sure to maintain a detailed custody agreement. In circumstances like these, it may be a good idea to work with lawyers who can draw up the paperwork, instead of working with your ex directly. This way you can maintain limited contact. If you go to court to work out a custody agreement, the court will appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the interest of the child and provide information for a judge to base their ruling on. If your current partner or ex has been abusive in any way towards you or the child, be sure to maintain records stating dates, times, and behaviors of your co-parent, as well as what you did to keep your child safe.

Seek Out Counseling

If you notice that you or your child is struggling to cope with your co-parent's behavior, it may be a good idea to seek out a counselor who specializes in this type of family dynamic. Counseling is a great option for anyone who wants to increase their coping skills, as well as their insight, while speaking with a trained professional who can help you better understand the given situation. Seek out a therapist if:

Mom and daughter in therapy session
  • You or your child are experiencing a shift in appetite or sleep
  • You or your child are experiencing emotional ups and downs that are challenging to cope with
  • You or your child have thoughts of self-harm or suicide (seek immediate help by calling the police, your counselor, or a crisis line to assist)
  • You or your child are experiencing somatic complaints, symptoms of anxiety, symptoms of depression, or symptoms of PTSD

Your child may want you to attend therapy with them, but keep in mind that if the counseling is specifically for them, you are there to provide support and observe. If you feel you need to see a counselor as well, your child's therapist can make an appropriate recommendation so you can better process the given situation.

Limit Your Contact

For those that are still in a relationship with someone who has narcissistic personality disorder, it's important to decrease emotional contact with them in order to keep yourself emotionally safe. For those no longer in the relationship with their co-parent, the best approach is to minimize contact as much as possible. These behavioral shifts can help minimize their attempts to manipulate you.

Avoid Conflict

Those with narcissistic traits thrive on conflict. They will attempt to bait you as a means of maintaining a relationship with you. If possible, the best thing to do is avoid face-to-face contact. Instead, try to engage in e-mail contact as your primary means of communication, and use phone contact only when necessary. Keep your conversations strictly to the topic of the children and save all your proof of communication. If the conversation turns to other subjects, bring the conversation back to the children. If he or she continues to change the subject, end the conversation as quickly as possible. Arrange neutral, public places for drop-off and pick-up of the children.

Maintain Control

Those with narcissistic personality disorder may feel like they've won if they can make you angry or lose control of yourself by yelling, crying, or pleading. If they win, they will continue to behave in ways that get a rise out of you. Remaining as unemotional as possible is the best way to go about interacting with them. Minimizing contact is one way to be able to maintain control of yourself in front of him or her.

Man yelling at a woman who is smiling

Be Prepared

Educate yourself. Understanding what is likely to happen can help you to prepare yourself to deal with different scenarios that may arise when dealing with your co-parent. Those with narcissistic traits were often raised in unhealthy households growing up with high conflict, sometimes abuse, and an unhealthy parent-child attachment. So, when you opt to break up with them and limit contact, their early childhood traumas are often triggered which pushes them to act out even further. Keep interactions curt, and if you feel unsafe always notify the appropriate authorities, and protect the children involved.

Plan for the Worst

Those with narcissistic personality disorder do not forgive and forget. They hold grudges for a very long time. They thrive on revenge and trying to psychologically hurt you as much as they can because they feel abandoned and rejected. Think of these behaviors as a mirror for how much pain they experienced internally as a child and are now inflicting on others. Prepare yourself for a tough battle. Before seeing your ex face-to-face, think about what you are going to say and try to think about all the possible responses and how you will deal with them. Preparing yourself for interactions in advance may help you to control your frustration in the moment.

Get Everything in Writing and Keep Records

Making promises and not following through is a typical narcissistic behavior. Make sure to get everything in writing. Don't believe verbal promises. He or she may promise to pay child support but in reality sees child support as giving you money, not as a means to help support your children. Work with your lawyer to have as much written into a court order as possible. Talk to the lawyer about what you can do after everything is finalized to ensure that promises are kept.

Maintain Firm Boundaries

Maintaining boundaries with someone who has no respect for them is difficult. Remember that you are not maintaining boundaries to change their behavior. You are maintaining boundaries to keep yourself and your children as healthy and safe as possible.

Be Assertive

There is a difference between passivity, assertiveness, and aggression. If you are passive, your co-parent will always get his or her way. If you are aggressive, you are attempting to get your way at the expense of your co-parent. If you are assertive, you are standing up for your rights without damaging the self-esteem of another. Understand that your co-parent will probably not see things this way. He or she will most likely see any attempts at boundary setting as aggression and unconsciously as a rejection. Their response to your boundary setting is not your responsibility. Your boundaries will provide the consistency that you and your children need to be healthy.

Don't Admit to Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes, and it is natural for people to want to admit to and apologize for their mistakes. However, admission of mistakes will most likely be used as ammunition by your co-parent. Mistakes can be blown out of proportion and used as evidence that you are the crazy, unhealthy, unstable parent. If you make a mistake, move on from it as matter-of-factly as possible.

Mother hugging daughter

Explore Parallel Parenting

Co-parenting, or two parents working together to raise their kids, is not possible in high-conflict situations. A better option is parallel parenting. Parallel parenting allows both parents to make decisions regarding the children when the children are under their care.

Goals of Parallel Parenting

There are two main goals of parallel parenting. The first is to avoid conflict in front of the children. Although one result may be to decrease conflict overall, the main goal is to decrease the amount of conflict that the children see. The second goal is to minimize parental contact with each other. This goal is not to minimize either parent's contact with the children. The goal is to allow both parents to see the children while minimizing contact between the parents.

Creating a Parallel Parenting Plan

Parallel parenting plans must be very specific and are usually set up in the court custody agreement. The plan is designed to cut out as much necessary communication as possible. Make sure that your custody agreement specifically details at least the following:

  • Specific days for visitation as well as start and end times
  • Where pick-up and drop-off will take place
  • Provisions about cancellation and make-up times, if any
  • Responsibility for transportation
  • Process for dispute resolution if there is a disagreement between parents over the visitation schedule

You may also wish to consider adding things such as which parent has responsibility for which activities -- for example, one parent may take responsibility for sports while the other parent takes responsibility for another activity. As this is a legal document, talk to your lawyer about additional stipulations you might want.

Never Give Up

Chances are, the parent with narcissistic tendencies won't change very much. Be realistic about this. However, for the sake of your children, try to keep things as amicable as possible. This may not work, no matter what you do. Just remember that although you cannot control another person's behavior, you can control your own. The ultimate goal is your children being able to have relationships with both of their parents that are as conflict-free as possible. Make that your goal every time you interact with your kids' other parent.

Co-Parenting with a Narcissist